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8:44 Saint Petersburg

By Gabriela Capestany · 7 months ago

October 22nd, 4:15 AM: Ørestad, Copenhagen, Denmark

Can I still cancel my flight?

This is all that’s on my mind. I’ve been up for hours packing for a trip that I’ve slowly begun to dread. Under my bed sheets, I frantically search the price for cancellations on my phone. Sleep hasn’t come after hours of tossing and turning, and now I’m supposed to step foot on flight 666 to Helsinki in two and a half hours.

The answer to my question, however, is no. I can’t cancel my flight and I can’t cancel my ferry. Despite my futile attempts to delay this trip, the hours of packing and sewing my torn vest, they just wasted my time. My flight is still taking off in two and a half hours and I haven’t gotten any sleep.

3:32 PM: Port, Helsinki, Finland

I’m in my element, that feeling of being in a new place with endless possibilities ahead. I’m alone abroad for the first time and I have two weeks ahead of me. It’s both daunting and euphoric to imagine what can happen between now and then.

I slept on a stranger’s couch last night. She took me Finnish social dancing and fed me squeaky cheese covered with jam. We sat inside a sauna and laid in the Helsinki Harbor baths. Henni, formerly the stranger and now my friend, grabbed my hands and looked me straight in the eyes. “I feel like you and I have this connection on another level. The world has brought us together.”

She says this to me as we sit in lukewarm steaming water that swirls in the crisp October air.

I’m still floating with Henni’s affirmation as I board the ferry to Russia. I try not to think about what lies ahead, like the fact that I’m about to share a windowless room with three random passengers or that there is no wifi or cell service for the full 18 hours of this trip. For now, it seems okay, my eyes are blinded by the copious amount of shiny brass lining every surface of this Russian ferry. People always tell stories about Russia but I’m eager to find my own. As a lover of communist kitsch and euro trash, the kind of stories I heard about Russia fit the bill.

Sunrise at Helsinki Harbor on a crisp October morning.

October 23rd, 6:10 PM: Baltic Sea

Helen is 32 and Caroline is 31.

Urban planner Aussies living in London, they took the Russian ferry for the weekend and ended up in my room. Up to the bar we go, one of the few dining options available on this isolated ship. We clink our glasses cheers to new friends and stare with wide eyes at what we are hoping will be some kind of fascinating Russian spectacle around us.

An hour later and it’s still just the sad saxophone man resting his instrument on a stool while he plays slowly, his eyes glazed over. He’s done this every night for the month. I’m on my third beer and Helen and Caroline can’t believe I’m only 20 years old. We eat pierogis at the combination sushi and Italian restaurant down the hall, across from the lobby of slot machines and the photo of Vladimir Putin. I’m comfortable but there are only 12 hours until we dock in Saint Petersburg and I must be alone again.

October 24th, 8:44 AM: Sennaya, Saint Petersburg, Russia

I had to pinch myself.

Just after six in the morning, the ferry pulled up to the most gloriously Soviet terminal. A grey brutalist behemoth with Jetsons-style 1950s features. Monotone yet shining, sleek yet jagged, it was almost foreshadowing what lay ahead over the next 72 hours.

Alone again, I strode through the winding canals of Saint Petersburg as Russians sleepily awoke and strolled the streets opening up their shops. There was no cell service so I navigated via map and took in the early morning scenes as the sun rose. This isn’t the scary place CNN told me about. Facades were bathed in gold, every building looked like an intricate palace-front.

Fall trees in front of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

Sennaya Plaza opened up to me and I was blasted with noise and Cyrillic lettering on nearly every surface. I walked around the perimeter looking for the Mansarda Hostel sign but after one lap I came up empty. My phone kept connecting and disconnecting to questionable wifi sources that didn’t load.

Another lap and no success.

I panicked. My backpack suddenly felt too heavy, my vest too hot and tight. The world around me was a blur of cheap-looking advertisements and Russians walking to the metro station. It’s okay, I reminded myself. I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be. I circled the large plaza once again and found the sign tucked away in a corner on a small faded red door.

After breathing a sigh of relief, I nudged my way inside where I was greeted by an old Babushka woman sitting at a desk with a large screen of security footage on the way. There are exactly two posters next to this TV, one for a Thai restaurant and one for a massage parlor, and a grey door at the back of the dimly lit room.

I asked Babushka if this is Mansarda and she began speaking rapid-fire Russian. I pointed at the door and asked again, as if repeating myself will make her magically understand English. After another Russian reply, she pulled out her Nokia cell phone from 2002, made a call, and then ushered me to stand in a corner. Babushka eventually sat back down at her desk and began to read a book.

Two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes… I’m still standing there. I looked at the sign for the massage parlor and told myself that this is what I get for coming to Russia alone. Maybe the massage parlor is my fate. The door finally opens and a man who only knows my name calls me. I followed but I soon found that’s the only word we will speak between us.

The hallway is long, fluorescent, and lined with door after door with hanging massage parlor signs on the outside. Right, left, left, right, it doesn’t end as I followed the man who only knows my name. As we exited the maze, our next task includes climbing five flights of stairs. I’m really committing now, I’m not sure whether that girl trying to cancel her flight and cruise would be proud of me or absolutely terrified.

I saw a couch and I plopped myself down wheezing partially from the vertical gain but mostly from the relief I felt walking into “Mansarda” at last. The only thing the man, Vlad, with the blonde mullet at the front desk knew how to say in English was “cash only”.

I fell face first on to my bed and was greeted with a crisp crunch. Surely, I thought, it couldn’t be a potato chip, but there it was, crushed into the thin stiff sheets. The overpriced bed sheets I hauled from Helsinki are my saving grace and I create a cocoon for myself within the stiff potato chip Mansarda sheets and drifted off into a slumber. I dreamt of Henni, Helen, and Caroline, the sad saxophone man, Babushka, and the man who only knows me by my name.

I wish I could say that I saw Russia as some bizarre land emanating the cartoonish version I had seen online and in lore. But, besides the occasional Putin military-themed tchotchke, this was far from true.

Outside “The Church of the Savior on Blood” in Saint Petersburg, Russia.

After my nap, I found Vasif, Henni’s Azerbaijani Armenian-born friend, who took me out for a whirlwind tour of Saint Petersburg. Eight hours later, my were feet were sore and my hands were numb. Vasif was telling me that we were headed to the most Soviet place ever: a donut shop. He bought us a heaping plate of the most incredibly tender donuts and two cups of coffee with condensed milk.

Again, via Henni’s recommendations, I met Galina and Liza, two girls teaching English to Russians at an evening school. I go to order my meal with them at lunch and the cashier is giddy and rapidly tells Galina something.

“She’s excited to use her English,” Galina tells me, “You made her day.”

Time goes quick and we are out strolling in the brisk air; the numbness begins to return as fall in Russia isn’t exactly mild, but the intricate buildings illuminated in the night give off some kind of faux warmth.

Galina says, “I volunteered for the elections and wanted people to vote, but then I saw the counters putting in ballots for Putin and I have lost all of my hope.”

Liza says, “I improve my English by watching Jon Stewart and John Oliver.”

I found a random Russian who stopped me on the street after he overheard me speaking English.

“I am so glad to see Americans here,” he says and beams a large, warm smile.

Shortly after, I board the ferry and go to my room with Caroline and Helen. We listen to the sad saxophone man and exchange our stories about how Russia is not the land of shirtless Putins and tacky pop music.

Ten more days saw me through the towns of Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius.Over those days, I drank plenty of cheap beer before 11 am; bought a last minute ticket to a hockey game and snuck into the rink-side seats, and hitched a ride to my next country with a German man named Felix and an Argentinian-Italian man named Titziano in a little convertible Volkswagen, top-down, in the snow, blasting Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” as oncoming drivers stared at us with mouths wide open.

I can’t say that everything was easy but I sat on my bed in Copenhagen two weeks after I was frantically trying to cancel my flight and wondered if I would have felt the same way then as when I was so scared to leave. The curse of being so paranoid only lasted as far as the moment I met Henni and was whisked away on that absurd Finnish adventure. Going in as a cocky, seasoned solo traveler wouldn’t have made every small step a triumph and every triumph a legend. Calling those past weeks “the best two weeks of my life” wouldn’t be accurate and saying that “I found myself” isn’t true. What is true is that I met new people and did things I’d never done because of them and carried on through the most spectacular two weeks my short life had ever seen.

Next time, I think I can book the flight and easily rest.

Edited by Jack Russillo